Jim Baca Says ATVs and ABQ's Arroyos Don't Mix

On a recent bike ride along the bosque’s riverside trail where it flanks the Tijeras Arroyo, I spotted two men on four-wheelers in the bottom of the concrete ditch, gunning their way west toward the river. This is the end of the miles-long run for the Tijeras Arroyo, which carries runoff all the way from the Sandias through the city and eventually merges with the South Diversion Channel before cascading through the outfall (an image-rich word referring to the open mouth of the concrete channel) into the Rio Grande floodplain. The two off-roaders saw me following them and blazed around the opposite corner of the outfall and out of sight before I could grab my camera. They knew they weren’t supposed to be there.
“Country-wide, Western-wide, ATVs are the worst thing you can have in a watershed,” said former Albuquerque Mayor and current New Mexico Natural Resource Trustee Jim Baca in a telephone interview. “There is nothing positive about them at all.”
After heading down to the floodplain, which is currently full with spring runoff, and taking photos of tire damage and discarded tires (which cannot necessarily be attributed to ATVs), I decided to try and report the violation. What began as a search for one telephone number began a city-wide conversation with city officials and key public figures – all of them taking time out of their day to discuss the issue with me at length, including Baca – about the problems with ATVs (All Terrain Vehicles) on public land and the ways in which the city and county can get better at handling them.
“Most of the arroyos should be marked with signs, and they are definitely off-limits,” said a representative for the city’s Open Space Division, which manages the bosque between the levee and the river, and Montessa Park, a 577-acre special-use off-road play area that claims the Tijeras Arroyo as its northern boundary. “Especially with the fire danger being so high, any spark could set something off.”
Being my initial contact, the Open Space Division representative was the first to tell me that the main reason for keeping Albuquerque’s enormous storm drainages off-limits to the public is for people’s safety. By three degrees of separation, I myself know people who have died in violent flash floods in the arroyos. But as for the effects of ATVs on the city’s water quality, Open Space couldn’t comment. And when I asked who should be notified of future violations, the representative gave me the number of the Open Space Police (873.6632), who would definitely be interested in hearing about off-roaders in the bosque floodplains and on the bike path, but who might not be able to do anything about the drainages.
“The best thing people can do is get descriptions of (off-road) vehicles, the time of the incident, the location and where they were headed,” she said. “If you know where people are getting into the drainages, that’s what we’re really interested in.”
She continued by saying that, even if APD and County Sheriffs are able to respond, catching offenders down in the arroyos is not an easy task for accessibility reasons. And though APD assured me they will respond to calls about arroyos within city limits, the South Diversion outfall is out of their jurisdiction.
So I dug around to find out who manages that particular slice of the South Diversion Channel and came across this highly complicated maintenance map, which shows that no fewer than six different entities are responsible for all the ditches in Albuquerque, including the City Arroyo Maintenance and the New Mexico Department of Transportation, to name a couple. The South Diversion outfall happens to belong to the Albuquerque Metropolitan Arroyo Flood Control Authority (AMAFCA).
Loren Hines, Real Estate Manager for AMAFCA, reiterated Open Space’s sentiments about safety and the difficulty of catching offenders, but expounded on his organization’s concern for water quality.
“There is a concern for water quality to have unauthorized vehicles in there,” he said after explaining that AMAFCA’s work crews drive vehicles from their own fleet into the arroyos for maintenance purposes, “as well as it being a trespass. If we know where they’re getting in at, we’ll try and block it off. We do have an agreement with city and county law enforcement to enforce city and county ordinances in our drainages, but they generally don’t respond to trespass issues because they can’t get their vehicles in there.”
Together, Hines and I figured out that ATVs can easily access the floodplain and the South Diversion outfall near the bridge over the San Jose Drain – directly adjacent to the outfall – which is managed by the city. I often see street-legal vehicles parked there, and a road wide enough for regular trucks goes right past the bridge. The disturbing thing is that I’ve seen ATV tracks climbing straight up the dirt embankment that edifies the concrete drainage wall, completely avoiding the road altogether, and tracks on the fragile sand dunes indicates they’re using the bosque terrain to practice their technical climbs.
Though Hines gladly promised to send someone out to take a look at ways to block ATV entrance, I have a feeling any type of barricade will be ineffective. My summer work in the Willamette National Forest in Oregon has given me plenty of experience with ATVs and their defiance of boundaries.
At this point, I was getting that familiar sensation that only far-reaching public awareness will make a difference.
From Hines, I was directed to Kathy Verhage who works on permits for the Storm Water Drainage Engineering Division of the city’s Engineering Department. She’s responsible for getting approval for drainage engineers’ designs. Albuquerque, with a population over 250,000, must meet more stringent standards than other smaller towns. This year, the city’s Municipal Separate Storm Permit, which deals with the water quality of Albuquerque’s storm sewer systems, is up for renewal. For these types of permits, samples are taken directly out of drainages and tested for quality, and the South Diversion outfall is one of the testing sites.
“Leaving oil deposits right next to the Rio Grande does present a problem. It’s just like dumping oil right in there,” she said. “But I did recently review data from the Tijeras outfall and oil levels are below detection limits.”
This is good news for now, but Verhage wonders about the steady increase of ATV recreation in the city and whether or not it could pose a problem in the future.
“This could be something in the future we might need to address,” she said, “maybe partner with Open Space and AMAFCA to find a way to solve the problem.”
Besides oil deposits, Verhage pointed to the real problem with ATV tire damage, a thing she refers to as turbidity, which indicates the cloudiness caused by floating particles in water. Erosion and sand displacement by ATVs increases the level of turbidity in local watersheds and makes it difficult for the Water Treatment Facility to properly treat the water contained in them. Baca expressed the same concern, but from a water conservation standpoint.
“The more tires break down banks and flatten out soils in watersheds, the more sediment gets into the water and the faster the water evaporates,” he said with a laugh. “I’m personally not going to buy any more cars from Honda until they stop making those machines.”
On Baca’s blogsite, he shows images of ATV advertisements from Honda and Yamaha where riders are splashing through water in natural settings. This could be dangerous persuasion for new riders, because in most public parks and forests that allow off-roading, such as the Willamette, off-roading is usually banned from open water and water drainages to keep oil deposits out and turbidity down. The end result of turbidity besides water treatment difficulties is a habitat where fish and other wildlife have difficulty breathing. Floating sediment is to fish what pollution is to humans and mammals.
“The best thing people can do,” Baca continued, “is to carry video cameras, take pictures, post them on the web, get them out there. Do whatever it takes to raise awareness. Eventually we need ordinances enacted to confiscate vehicles from violators after one or two offenses. There are currently no incentives for them to obey the laws. We do it with drunk drivers.”
After Baca’s interview, I wish I had gotten my camera out in time, but he also warns that confrontation with off-roaders could be dangerous, and he discouraged my suggestion of a citizen watch force.
Chris Johnson, president of the New Mexico Off Highway Vehicle Alliance (NMOHVA) has not yet responded to my request for an interview.

Views: 34

Comment by chantal on April 28, 2008 at 10:23am
“The best thing people can do,” Baca continued, “is to carry video cameras, take pictures, post them on the web, get them out there. Do whatever it takes to raise awareness."

Sounds like a blogger challenge to me.
Comment by Blakeington on April 28, 2008 at 11:17am
Doug R, I definitely concur that the problem points to larger societal woes. My feeling that only broadbased awareness will make a difference was a little understated, and I chose to keep it that way for a reason, but what I would like to amend there now, after reading your comments, is that, just like you said, the ultimate responsibility lies with the riders. What disturbs me about ATVs and vehicles in general is seeing what people will do with power once they've been given it. The underlying destructive force here is not altogether ATVs themselves, but inherent human weakness. So the question is, essentially, how do we get riders to be responsible? Personally, I am for stricter mandates, like Baca said, as a start, but on top of that I LOVE his boycott idea. I actually tried to contact Honda and Yamaha to ask them some questions. I'm still on that trail, because I want to get to the heart of the matter, the manufacturers themselves. They stand to lose the most (money) if riders continue to act irresponsibly. Lastly, I'm all for putting in the effort on this learning curve: educating people one by one if necessary about the destructiveness of certain behavior and enlightening them about other forms of recreation and how much more rewarding they can be, like hiking, biking, jogging, swiming, etc. But you're right, the problem doesn't stop with ATVs. Even dogs off leash in open spaces can do incredible damage to habitat (and Open Space, like the Forest Service, requires dogs to be leashed at all times for a good reason; yet another learning curve I'm constantly trying to get over with people). Blogger challenge accepted.
Comment by Blakeington on April 28, 2008 at 11:51am
Good question, Sarah A. I hadn't thought that far. What I really think people should do is send them no larger than 72 dpi (for size sake) with detailed information about time, place, description of vehicles and riders, how many they saw and what they were doing, to the Open Space head administrator at nsandoval@cabq.gov, letting them know that, though Open Space might not be able to respond to the incident (unless you are sure the event occurred on Open Space land), you would like to see the City address these violations more aggressively in the future, with stricter legislation and more public awareness. I think a flood of photographs will make a difference and send a clear message. As far as posting on the web, any suggestions? I would be glad to have people send them to me directly in a personal message here at DCF and I could use them in future blogs. Kenny, if you get any footage, let me know.
Comment by Blakeington on April 28, 2008 at 12:13pm
Okay, Sarah A. I'm creating the flickr group now. I think that was a great idea. What should it be called? Wild ATVs caught on camera? ATVs Gone Wild?
Comment by Blakeington on April 28, 2008 at 12:21pm
Also, have you looked at all the ATV flickr groups already out there? There's like a million, all pro-ATV of course, so I think you're right, it needs to be focused and geared toward people who want to raise awareness through images, not just promote their jumpin' and muddin' and thrashin'. I got kind of sick after that little flickr foray. It might take me a moment to recover. . .
Comment by Blakeington on April 28, 2008 at 1:55pm
Well said, Rodney, and yay for Washington State! I go up there every summer and believe me, they have a long way to go with on-land off-roaders, as do Oregon and New Mexico, but that's another blog. You bring up a good point about snowmobiles. In the forest where I work in the summers, they actually do more damage than wheeled ATVs in the off-season due to high-marking (trying to get to the top of a mountain in one straight shot as quickly as possible, just to be the best) and by running over small, sub-alpine trees and shifting the dense snowpack. And yes, I cringe when I look at the scars on Montessa Park, especially because every vertical track is only separated by a couple yards, leading to the question, "why do they need so many tracks on one hillface?" It makes it glaringly obvious that they're in it just to tear up virgin ground, and that, like you said, fragile desert landscapes have no value to some people unless they can be driven on. There is still wildlife out there, though people are going too fast to see it and probably wouldn't appreciate it anyway.
Deanna Archuleta, the Bernalillo County Commissioner, was one of the folks I tried to get a hold of for this article, and as far as I know she's part of the NMWA and very vocal about ATV destruction. I will continue to try and contact her, as well as take your suggestion and give my support to the NMWA.
Comment by bonnie on April 28, 2008 at 6:00pm
We sent the open space police a photo of someone riding their moped/scooter on the bike path, but they didn't seem too excited to track them down and ticket them. Even though we caught the license plate and the guy's face in the photo.
Also, having worked on the travel management plan, I will concur that the ATV/Motorized use contingency is huge and very organized. They show up for meetings and have their voices heard. The forest service is trying to set up a volunteer patrol to help keep poachers from tearing up the trails. Don't know if Open Space has anything like that in the works.
Comment by Tricross on April 28, 2008 at 6:21pm
ATVs and UTVs(two seater side by side) are the backbone of the powersports industry and have a very strong lobby. Also adding to the problem is the flood of powerful ATVs and UTVs from China which cost 1/3 to 1/2 the price of those available from the Japanese companies. A friend of mine was in the powersports industry for about 5 years. He got fed up with the jerks that bought ATVs so he quit selling them. His revenue dropped and eventually had to close his doors. Another friend of mine is a park ranger in Moab, Utah. You think we have an ATV problem here!
Comment by Blakeington on April 28, 2008 at 6:31pm
David, Thank YOU! I was just out on a bike ride to the site (with camera easily accessible this time) and it occurred to me to mention to folks that reading the NMORVA site is a great way to find out about public meetings going on like the ones you mentioned above. People need to let the Forest Service know they are in support of limiting OHV activity on our public lands, and the public comment period is a great time to do that. I highly encourage people to keep up on them and voice their opinions, because as Bonnie, Tricross and I can attest to, the ORV lobbying machine is in fact very strong and the integrity of our public lands is at constant risk.
As for the flickr site, I'm creating it right now. What do you all think about the name ATVs Caught Behaving Badly? Too broad? Should we narrow it to NM? Let me know. If we get over 677 members it can be the top listed flickr site above all the "let's see yer muddin' and jumpin'" sites. I will let you know when I get it open.
For Scott and Mark, your comments are duly noted, though maybe a little dangerous, for several reasons. First of all, everyone has the right to enjoy this earth, but I strongly disagree that off-roaders should have access to our public lands because, namely, they are destructive and secondly, they are considered an exclusive user group, meaning they push other people out of the area they enjoy (read: violate, trash, harm and squander). Thirdly, as discussed at the top of these comments, they excersize very little control and have almost zero tolerance for boundaries. Though there are "responsible" riders, one percent of irresponsible riders can do enough harm for the rest of them. Furthermore, eventually our National Forests and Parks will be part of the carbon credit trading system, and they haven't even taken motorized recreation into account for the carbon emmissions they'll be responsible for.
But the dangerous part of your argument lies in your belief that there is not a well funded effort on the side of ORVs. In the Willamette National Forest, the OHV state licensing agencies are the ones funding the research going into these travel management plans and the ones who will hand over an enormous check to implement the plans once they are developed. You might be right about an un-funded pro-ORV effort in New Mexico, but everything I have seen concerning these issues has shown that ORV support has money and environmental preservation does not. So, Mark, off-roading is being taxed, heavily, and the question is always going to center around how it should be spent: rehabilitate or proliferate? Run amuck, amuck, amuck: the neocons' solution to everything they can make money off of.
Comment by Don Quixote on April 29, 2008 at 12:16pm
So far as I can tell, there is no such thing as a responsible ATV owner/user. I've spent a lot of time out in the forests and wild areas, and I've never seen one....and I've seen a LOT of irresponsible ones.

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